There are many things India is infamous for and one of those is Dharavi. What is the first thing that comes to your head when you hear the word ‘Dharavi’? For most, it’s one of the largest slums in the world; for frequent fliers, it’s the view from the flight as it descends into the Mumbai Airport; for movie buffs, it’s the prime location for filming a chase scene of an Oscar-winning movie; for migrants, it’s the cheapest possible accommodation the city has to offer; and for builders, it’s prime property land going to waste. However, very few know that Dharavi exports goods worth millions of dollars not just to India, but around the world!
Over a recent engagement activity for its Payroll Giving corporate partners, GiveIndia, through Reality Tours, facilitated an experiential tour to the slums of Dharavi. While the tour was angled at generating more awareness and exposure towards the livelihood opportunities at Dharavi, what we experienced was clearly more than mere observation. It was, rather, an insight in terms of really knowing more about Dharavi than what most of us Indians usually reckon with.
If one were to walk through the slum’s narrow, dark alleyways, the conditions would seem no different from any other slum – scarcity of sanitation facilities, a million people housed in a total space of 0.67 square miles and inadequate drinking water supply. However, what one doesn’t fail to ignore is the way dwellers seem or behave – content, comfortable, preoccupied yet at ease. As Asim, our knowledgeable tour guide, reveals: ‘The dwellers may be poor but they work to contribute towards the richness around here.’ We learn that the flourishing leather and recycling industries, along with a string of small scale industries such as pottery, embroidery, bakery and poppadum, contribute to a whopping turnover of approximately US$650 million a year!
Asim goes on to further explain that within the 1 million dweller base at Dharavi, 70 per cent of the worker population comprises of migrant workers. These workers are from across the sub-continent, and come to the city to make a living. While most of them live in single-room factory floors and undergo hazardous working conditions to earn a daily wage of US$1-3, their business owners stay in posh localities, drive around in BMWs and don’t even bother to make frequent visits to the slum.
This economic disparity serves as a classic case of an inequitable wealth distribution that is characteristic across the country. Does this mean the government hasn’t made any attempts to curb it? Projecting an upliftment in living standards, the state government has been at an urban redevelopment plan since 2004. According to a Wall Street Journal report, the plan involves the construction of housing, schools, parks and roads to serve the 57,000 odd families of the slum. However, the plan has faced more opposition than support, primarily because it has been drafted to offer resettlement only to families who lived in the area before 2000. According to another report, by BBC News, concerns have also been raised by communities that fear that some of their small businesses in the ‘informal’ sector may not get relocated under the redevelopment plan. Given an undying spirit of unity among the residents, some say that the plan may never materialize. What then does the future of these communities lay in?
Several local non-profits operating out of Dharavi are confident of making an impact as they encourage education, computer literacy and hygiene at the residential areas.
The Dharavi project, an initiative of Acorn Foundation (India), focuses on the betterment of the rag-picking community by organizing health clinics, and cultural workshops through which young children engaged in rag picking get informal education in music, photography and other arts. In the past, the NGO has engaged at creating awareness through several high-profile celebrity fundraisers and currently partners with schools for waste management programs for engagement with the rag-picking community.
With the goal of personal and community development for the slum residents of Dharavi, NGO Atma partners with NGO Reality Gives to provide services in education and extra-curricular activities such as arts and sports.
The Child Health and Nutrition program, started by the NGO SNEHA complements the government’s Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and helps government daycare workers, who are responsible for delivering a range of health, nutritional and educational services in Dharavi, through groups of community link workers.
Reality Gives, a sister NGO of Reality Tours, partners with NGOs such as Educo and Muktangan and several others to facilitate curriculum development, language support, youth empowerment programs, kindergarten and night school facilities at Dharavi.
Though these initiatives are hopeful of making a strong impact in the residential areas, hazardous working conditions in the commercial areas still remain worthy of concern.
As we ended our tour through those dimly lit areas and started to interact with the residents, we couldn’t help but notice how their proud and gleaming faces bring richness to the world of perpetual poverty at Dharavi. Certainly, they do not demand much – with only the hope to live in an equitable society soon enough.
Priyanka Saha is manager of marcom for the payroll giving team at GiveIndia